Thursday, October 9, 2008

Standard engines in F1?! WTF?!?

A couple of years ago, the FIA announced that by 2008, F1 cars will utilize a standard ECU for two reasons; to cut down each team's cost of developing their own units, and to ensure that the FIA can strongly enforce the ban on traction control and all other electronic drivers' aids.

And according to one report, with the recent economic crash in Wall Street, coupled with FIA chief Max Mosley's warning that he's prepared to take "draconian measures" to to curb the spiraling cost of competing in F1 and ensure its long-term survival, Formula One Group supremo Bernie Ecclestonne let slip that plans are already being drawn up for the teams to use a standard engine as early as 2010.

But before we all get our boxers, briefs, panties and thongs in a bunch, it's not as drastic as it seems. It's not like one manufacturer will provide the engine for all the teams, thereby turning the entire F1 circus into a one-make series like the GP2 where all the teams use a specific chassis, engine and tires.

Instead, works teams would build their own powerplants following a standard design that will be set forth by the FIA, thus cutting engine development cost by as much as 90%. It's also being proposed that these standard engines should last for half a season, thus cutting down the cost even more. In effect, the only difference between the engines of Ferrari, McLaren-Mercedes, BMW , Renault, Toyota and Honda would be the engine badge; everything else would be the same.

Now this is a double-edged sword. Although it's good for the sport in the long run - and I'm all for seeing the sport last a long, long time - the very principle of F1 being the proving ground for cutting-edge technological innovations that could one day be used on road cars is gone. Placing such a restriction limits the innovations a team could use to try and race competitively.

For instance, when everyone else was using narrow-angled V10 engines, Renault experimented with a wide-angled powerplant, hoping that its lower center of gravity would give them an advantage by improving the car's handling. Unfortunately, the engine proved too heavy and unreliable so after three seasons of soldiering on with the wide-angle design, Renault went back to using a more conventional one.

Furthermore, some mechanical and aerodynamic components that are widely being used in today's road cars like the variable valve timing system, turbochargers and the use of ground-effects all gained widespread use in F1 first before they were introduced to your Honda Civics and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions. And if F1 works teams can manage to use the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) regenerative brake system to full effect, then it wouldn't be surprising for them to adapt the technology into their road cars in the future.

A balance, then, must be made. But how to find the balance between restricting technological developments and yet promoting new technological innovations is an issue that might never be answered. The FIA simply cannot tell the teams to restrict developing a specific technology, say, the engine, and yet tell them to come up with an effective yet altogether different piece of technology, like the regenerative brake system. Where's the cost-cutting effort in that? They're simply just migrating the money from the development of one aspect to another one. Cost-cutting effort? More like cost-migrating effort to me.

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